Chief Whitefeather Arriving Unprepared, fiction by Stefanie Freele

On the day Clive returns, four months after his last tur­bu­lent vis­it, Olive opens the door and can smell him, a thick mix­ture of burned sage and fer­men­ta­tion. This scent is not good, but bet­ter than the dead-body stench com­ing from the vent in her hatch­back parked out front, the one she just drove home with the win­dows open despite the Feb­ru­ary weath­er. Clive is in her bed, face down, green under­weared butt stick­ing up like a tod­dler, snor­ing. A scar­let patch of dark skin cov­ers his tat­toos, his shoul­ders, his upper arms. His face is the pur­ple of strangulation.

She thinks – in the time it takes to shake him – that this time he’s done it. When she asks what med­ica­tions he’s tak­en, he responds with a blur­ry list, using that baf­fled yet hon­est tone a per­son uses when they know they’ve blown it and have noth­ing to lose, Vicodin, migraine med­i­cine, Vod­ka, Advil, oth­er stuff. The pur­ple-red mot­tled appear­ance of his skin seems to be already dark­er and spread­ing as if it is tak­ing over his body. I’m good, he slurs with eyes closed, headache gone.

She takes a pic­ture of his skin and tries to show the cam­era to his squin­ty eyes. I’m call­ing the VA or the Clin­ic or someone.

The Pres­i­dent, he mum­bles.

The nurse, a woman with mere­ly a mod­icum of enthu­si­asm in her voice, needs to talk to him direct­ly, pri­va­cy and all that. Olive hands him the phone, think­ing he’ll hang up. Instead, with eyes closed and a loud voice, he tells her how fine he is and how Olive is para­noid. From across the bed Olive can hear the tin­ny voice of the nurse state she may be para­noid but our physi­cian says you need to be seen in the Emer­gency Room.

Noooo, he says like a child who has been told to get off the swing set much too ear­ly, noooo! I’m fine here.

As instruct­ed, Olive calls 911 and waits out­side for the ambu­lance. While she’s gaz­ing down the dirt road, the medic on the phone asks if Clive took this com­bi­na­tion of pills on pur­pose. I don’t know, she says, even though she’s think­ing, of course he did.

They arrive quick­ly but park far down toward the creek. Olive waves them up, think­ing it is obvi­ous where the call is from, but they don’t move. 

In a moment two Sher­iff cars also arrive, sirens off, park­ing in the mid­dle of the road, like offi­cers can. She pic­tures her­self at an inter­view for the police acad­e­my, why do I want to join law enforce­ment? So I can park in the mid­dle of the road.

The deputy, John Shrib­ble, one of those tall, bul­let-proof, semi-burly type who have an aura of con­fi­dence a val­ley-wide sashays into the yard, right up to Olive as if she’s caused trou­ble, points to the ambu­lance, What’s going on with Clive? He needs med­ical atten­tion but doesn’t want it?

She explains, invites him in, and John Shrib­ble square­ly stands at the foot of the bed look­ing as out of place as a sky­scraper in the mid­dle of a small town. Clive, what did you do? He says this as if he’s talk­ing to a hard-of-hear­ing frail elder­ly per­son, not an over-dos­ing well-mus­cled poten­tial­ly-armed man. 

As para­medics and oth­er uni­formed guests enter, Clive’s butt remains in the air and for a moment she hopes that he pass­es gas just to make this scene more whim­si­cal than it is. Their seri­ous pres­ences, hands on guns, walkie-talkie chor­tles, and grim faces make the farm­house seem small, weak, disorganized. 

After one of the kit­tens runs up an officer’s leg, cling­ing with nee­dle-sharp nails on his pants, she shoos them into the bath­room and shuts the door, lov­ing how the ani­mals aren’t tak­ing any of this emer­gency busi­ness seri­ous­ly. When she returns to the scene of Clive, the old­er one-eyed cat has set­tled on his back, giv­ing her­self a bath, as if this is an aver­age day, hav­ing sev­en peo­ple stand around the small bed­room while the warm body beneath lan­guish­es in a drugged stu­por and a pecu­liar woman wraps a pulse-tak­er around his arm. 

Clive, the deputy tries again in a flat tone, Clive, can you hear me.

Grunts, moans and an adjust­ment to his side. His hair is long enough now to cov­er up most of the scars on the back of his head, although a patch or two of whiteish skin is vis­i­ble if you try to find one. The woman with the cuff says this is good that he’s on his side in case he needs to throw up.

Don’t you dare throw up Clivey, this is a new mat­tress Olive says, as one of those ha-ha cri­sis-jokes. It comes out sound­ing uncar­ing and super­fi­cial as no one laughs. 

Can you try to jos­tle him a bit to wake him up? The deputy asks and she real­izes Shrib­ble doesn’t want to touch him.

Clive, she says, vis­i­tors! The deputy is here, John Shrib­ble, you know him, wake up.

A slow flick­er of eye­lids and Clive turns his pur­ple head toward the deputy, Shrib! What are you doing here? Clive says this in a how-won­der­ful-fan­cy-meet­ing-you-here type of voice that makes Olive gig­gle from the absur­di­ty of it. I was sleep­ing and here you are!

What did you take Clive? We got a call from the doc­tor that you wouldn’t come in to the Emer­gency. It is clear­er than clear; the deputies enforce the med­ical care of the belligerent.

Noth­ing, he says, med­i­cine for my headache. I need air. He maneu­vers his almost-nude grotesque­ly half-pur­ple body out of the bed and stag­gers to the door, falling for­ward through the liv­ing room and catch­ing the next door just before he collapses. 

Olive lets go of her frozen state and helps John help Clive out­side to the pic­nic table where Clive howls and stud­ies the sky. Who are all these peo­ple? Where is my nap? Why are they inside my beau­ti­ful nap?

She gets the feel­ing that the pro­fes­sion­als want to talk to the patient alone, and so she calls in the dogs who sniff the guests with friend­li­ness; one dog tries fear­less­ly to thrust a ball into the leg of an armed deputy who ignores him. The two geese how­ev­er side-eye the strangers, refus­ing any sort of round­ing up or wav­ing away.

Clive dis­re­gards the atten­tion of the offi­cers and the para­medics as they ask ques­tions. His only response is to sing with his eyes closed in a bad Irish-pub accent, I’m Irish, Chero­kee and I shouldn’t drink!

John tells him not to take all these med­ica­tions with­out doctor’s orders, as if this is a genius idea Clive must have nev­er con­sid­ered. Next time you have one of those headaches Clive, don’t mix these. Okay? This plea seems about as con­vinc­ing as telling a horse to go ahead and now be a cow.

When Clive final­ly focus­es on them, he declines to go to the emer­gency room — actu­al­ly his skin does look bet­ter, almost nor­mal now that he’s out­side and awake — and they hand him forms declar­ing he is reject­ing treat­ment. He signs them with a flour­ish, singing, I’m refus­ing treat­ment, I refuse! I refuse! I object! As he slumps back into a crum­pled pile of him­self with his chin on his chest, he mut­ters, every­one should sing with me.

The vom­it­ing begins short­ly after their parade of col­or­ful vehi­cles leave, and she is grate­ful he is puk­ing in the yard, rather than in the house. He is one of those loud melo­dra­mat­ic throw­er-uppers: on his knees, alter­nate­ly heav­ing and moan­ing, stop, stop.

From the steps she watch­es him until he says quit, go away. She thinks about when the oth­er deputy asked what her rela­tion­ship with Clive was and she respond­ed, friends. Friends since we were kids. She didn’t tell him they used to be step-broth­er and step-sis­ter. She left out details, mounds of details. 

That night she is in her own bed, he is on the oth­er side and it is a wide king, they are not lovers, but they’re on the same mat­tress. He has just giv­en out a load of gar­bled non­sense about how dumb it was to call the cops on him.

You are a Grade‑A idiot. She tells him as the kit­tens wres­tle on his chest. I didn’t call the cops. The clin­ic did.

He is breath­ing heavy, yet shal­low­ly and falling in and out of sleep. My soul is sit­ting next to me. I think I’m going to die tonight.

As they lay there in the dark while the wind whips along the win­dows and the shad­owy smell of storm flows in, she has a vision.

She’s not expect­ing one and hasn’t had one in a long time. A man, in jeans and a gray t‑shirt sits where she can see his pro­file. He has long shiny black hair and she com­pre­hends that this man is grave­ly con­cerned about Clive and maybe dis­ap­point­ed, but that part could be her own inter­pre­ta­tion. He sits between two paths, to the left is green grass and moun­tains, clear streams, the right is a trem­bling and decom­pos­ing city, with harsh pol­lu­tion. The city is dead. The man taps with his left hand, a long white feath­er wait­ing for Clive to get it. Per­haps the man is impa­tient, but that might be Olive’s impatience.

You need to get the white feath­er, she tells Clive. 

He agrees before she even has a chance to tell him about the vision. I do! I need the white feath­er before I die. I might die tonight if I don’t sleep.

She gets up and finds her green and red unakite stone, used for ground­ing. Hold this, she says, and you’ll fall asleep. He does and his snor­ing shakes the bed.

When she gets out of the show­er in the morn­ing, she finds him sit­ting up in bed, with the phone book, the phone, the com­put­er, a note­book spread around him. He is on the phone, say­ing, I need the white feath­er or I’m going to die. Do you have a white feath­er? How can you have an Amer­i­can Indi­an Store when you’re British? You’re a Limey! Can’t you get the white feather?

He makes many phone calls look­ing to var­i­ous orga­ni­za­tions, church­es, stores, for the white feath­er while I make break­fast. I can hear him say, Let me talk to the pro-pro-pri­a­tor. Are you the boss? I need the boss. Tell him I’m going to die.

As she eats and he ignores his eggs she explains that she had a vision and she thinks the man in the vision is a sym­bol, you’re not sup­posed to just buy a feath­er, you need to go on a jour­ney and earn it.

The white feath­er means brav­ery. I looked it up. I’m not brave.

She stud­ies him, scarred, dis­ori­ent­ed, unground­ed, cracked and thinks he is the bravest per­son she knows when the phone rings and it is some­one return­ing his call, they have a white turkey feather.

No! An eagle feath­er. I AM NOT A TURKEY. He shouts as if he’s explained this a thou­sand times and no one is lis­ten­ing. After toss­ing the phone, he leans back on the pil­low, look­ing exhaust­ed, wretched. I don’t want to earn it. 

After an hour’s climb in the driz­zle, she is halfway up the moun­tain at her rock. Here is where she always stops to either have a snack or a moment. Every time she’s here, even in the win­ter, she thinks a rat­tlesnake might be under the rock and to make sure she doesn’t offer her­self as bait, she cross­es her legs to keep them from dan­gling. Okay, so maybe she is para­noid, but when this lat­est bout is over, Clive will be mak­ing her a steak with mush­rooms and vow­ing nev­er to behave like that again.

While she rests the vision returns. This time, the man, who is stern and unhu­mored has a piece of his skull cut in a cir­cle at the top of his head. A sil­ver riv­er rush­es out of the top of his head, pro­jec­tile-vom­it like. The sil­ver has chunks of black. He is vom­it­ing out from the top of his head every­thing that builds up, thoughts, mem­o­ries, real­i­ties, par­tic­u­lars, every­thing that makes a migraine.

When she returns home, waters and feeds all the fos­ter ani­mals, drops a load into the wash­er, cleans the lit­ter box­es and pens, bot­tle-feeds the two baby squir­rels, she saves look­ing in on Clive for last.

He is still in the bed, small­ish, sal­low. He asks to check in with that vision, tell me please, he begs, what do I need to do to get the white feather?

What should she say to a man who has been offered a thou­sand ver­sions of help and ignored most of them? 

Chief White­feath­er, she laughs, you need to keep watch for guides. The words sound humor­ous, yet right. You’ll have many guides along the way. Who could argue with hav­ing many guides along the way of life?

He hides his head under a pil­low while the kit­tens try to paw their way to him. 

On the next squir­rel feed­ing she asks him to help. They scram­ble over that bot­tle and if I had anoth­er set of hands it would be easier.

He show­ers and makes him­self ready for feed­ing even though she tells him he’ll get messy and might as well wait until after. He says that the wildlife peo­ple called while she was out to ask if she’d take in a red-tailed hawk with an eye injury. 

She nods, I’ll take as many as I can and then I can’t take any more.

The squir­rels are sleep­ing when she opens the cage, hid­den in the cor­ner under pil­low­cas­es, but she soon hears small grunts. When she puts her hand in, they peek out with sharp black eyes and gray whiskery faces to climb up an arm, look­ing for the bot­tle. She has for­got­ten to put her hair up and one of them quick­ly nests itself above her neck. She shows Clive how to hold the bot­tle and hands him the squir­rel on her leg while she care­ful­ly un-nests the oth­er. The lit­tle rodent face stares up at him while suck­ing on the bot­tle, like a baby with a father. He seems rel­a­tive­ly clear-eyed this morn­ing and sings to the squir­rel a song about grow­ing up to escape the cage, the page, the knees and go climb trees.

He mar­vels, they don’t bite me.

After they feed, they always want to sit qui­et­ly on a shoul­der, often poop­ing or pee­ing, but Olive remem­bered her squir­rel shirt. One of them sits on Clive’s shoul­der, still, the stat­ue-like way squir­rels do. Clive removes him gen­tly and press­es the squirrel’s cheek to his own. He’s cry­ing and Olive lets him with­out interruption. 

In the morn­ing Clive is almost back to him­self which is a con­tra­dic­tion because how many shades of Clive are there and which one is nor­mal? He is out of bed on the couch and in that I’m‑sorry-Its-never-going-happen-again mood, as soon as I’m bet­ter, I’ll dig in that engine and find your dead mouse.

Don’t waste words on me, she tells him pinch­ing her fin­gers in the air. Every word is a pre­cious gem. Plus, she is in no hur­ry to have her car torn apart in the dri­ve­way with Clive cussing and throw­ing wrench­es across the yard.

He looks at the pho­tos of his pur­plish skin and admits she was cor­rect in call­ing the VA. I know I was right, she says, pleased that he under­stands. In com­par­i­son, now he looks pale, bloat­ed, scared. There was a time he found a doc­tor for Olive when she didn’t want one and they both know that.

She hears him in The Wild-Room as he calls it, the nurs­ery, singing and talk­ing to the squir­rels, telling them how they will be released in the woods soon, after they eat as much avo­ca­do and broc­coli as their tum­mies can han­dle. You’re going to love these sweet pota­toes, he says. You’re going to love the forest.

Chief White­feath­er, she says when he comes out, point­ing at a few brown rice-size poops on his shirt, take a walk?

I should have got things in order he says. I need­ed to work, not to be stupid.

She doesn’t want to hear remorse. Walk? She says insis­tent­ly, irritably.

They hike into the woods where he search­es for the per­fect tree to release the squir­rels, one where their squir­rel box can be placed with a view of the riv­er. We’ll release them ear­ly in the morn­ing he says, right at sunrise.

She notes that he is talk­ing about the future, as if he’ll be alive in four weeks. You’re not dying then between then and now?

He’s trudges in untied boots. I want to see them run along that tree, their first freedom. 

Four weeks from now they’ll be ready. Can you make it? What she means is, can you keep focused, keep on it, keep your­self togeth­er? Chief?

He doesn’t look con­fi­dent what­so­ev­er. Hop­ing.

I’m not say­ing thank you, he shouts while tak­ing off his shoes and pants to wade in the cold win­try riv­er, because you real­ly didn’t save my life this time. Halfway across, he ducks sound­less­ly beneath the surface.

I mere­ly made you break­fast, she says to the shim­mer­ing water, while he is under, down deep longer than you’d would think a man like Clive could hold his breath.

freeleSte­fanie Freele's pub­lished and forth­com­ing work can be found in Five Points, Wit­ness, Glim­mer Train, Mid-Amer­i­can Review, Wigleaf, West­ern Human­i­ties Review, Sou'wester, Chat­ta­hoochee Review, The Flori­da Review, Quar­ter­ly West, and Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Review. Ste­fanie is the author of two short sto­ry col­lec­tions, Feed­ing Strayswith Lost Horse Press and Sur­round­ed by Water, with Press 53. www​.ste​faniefreele​.com

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